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Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Op 80 (1898)
Prélude: quasi adagio
La Fileuse: andantino quasi allegretto
Sicilienne: allegretto molto moderato
Of the four composers most prominently associated with Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande - Debussy for his opera, Schoenberg for his symphonic poem, Fauré and Sibelius for their incidental music - Fauré was the first to have his score performed. Commissioned in a hurry by Mrs Patrick Campbell to write the music for the first production of the play in English, Fauré completed it in a month and conducted it himself at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1898.
The four movements he later chose to include in a concert suite - from a total of nineteen bits and pieces, including a song for Mrs Patrick Campbell as Mélisande - present a poignant portrait of Maeterlinck’s lonely heroine. The Prélude is based on a theme which, in its restricted movement in narrow melodic intervals, reflects her introverted, essentially private personality. A second theme, introduced by a compassionate solo cello and woodwind, might be taken to represent Mélisande as Golaud sees her when, lost while out hunting, he first finds her by the well in the forest.
La Fileuse accompanies Mélisande innocently at work at her spinning wheel. A characteristically intimate theme rises gently on a solo oboe, the spinning wheel running quietly but persistently on upper strings and failing only at the climax of the movement where, perhaps, Mélisande’s mind wanders from her work and turns towards Golaud’s younger half-brother, Pelléas. The one moment of happiness shared by Pelléas and Mélisande is represented by the Sicilienne, and no less aptly because it was originally written for a quite different occasion.
The funereal implications of the Molto adagio are unmistakable. So too is the subject of the lament as the melody in the flute and clarinets rises and falls in characteristically narrow intervals. The audience at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1898 would also have recognised the first entry of the violins as an allusion to Mélisande’s song. The first theme returns fortissimo on the strings before a last echo of the song and a sadly modal approach on solo flute to the final chord.
© Gerald Larner